Learning the Telemark way in Steamboat Springs
Best advice for Telemark lessons: Grit those teeth
March 19, 2011
Steamboat Springs — I asked everyone I could for advice, from 11-year-olds to locals who have been skiing Steamboat Springs' slopes for more than three times that lifespan.
Telemark skiing is one of those parts of mountain life that don't crack the purview of many tourists. I vacationed in Colorado half a dozen times and can't ever remember seeing someone Telemark ski. It wasn't on the Olympics, it wasn't on TV, and it wasn't something I was in any way aware of.
Of course, since I moved to Steamboat three years ago, that's all changed. My first roommate Telemark skied, and soon I realized in Ski Town USA, at least, this was no niche sport, no trendy fad.
Steamboat Telemarks, and after three years of writing about it and before another week of reporting — the U.S. Telemark National Championships touch down in Steamboat starting Thursday — I decided it was time to try it for myself.
So I asked everyone I could for advice.
"Don't lean forward," cautioned 11-year-old Peter Wharton, "or else you'll face plant."
"Do lots of pole plants," 12-year-old Bailey Wallisch offered.
"Keep your arms in front of you," longtime Telemarking veteran Peter Van De Carr suggested, "and grit your teeth."
Telemark's biggest fan
For those of you from the Great Plains, Telemark skis use bindings that don't clamp the heel to the ski. Skiers get down the mountain with a series of turns that look like lunges, one knee bent out in front of a skier and the other bent underneath.
It's obviously good for some things. Hiking and backcountry skiing come more naturally on Telemark skis.
"I like it because you get more face shots in the powder," Peter Wharton said.
It presents challenges, as well. Lunging down a mountain, for instance, has a way of wearing a skier out.
"It makes everything so much more athletic," Van De Carr said. "Put on a pair of Tele skis and go out for two or three hours, and it feels like a full day."
Van De Carr is as big a supporter of Telemark skiing as Steamboat has, and I turned to his shop, Backdoor Sports, for rentals.
He's been skiing exclusively Tele style for more than three decades and swears by it, saying it's easier on the body and even the knees.
"We started going in the early '80s," Van De Carr said. "The gear was a lot less expensive. It was a lot simpler. It was kind of a cool time because it was almost like we were inventing a new form of skiing."
No easy exercise
Decades later, it still is new to me, and for the first time since I learned to ski when I was about 8 years old, I was frightened coasting down the most gentle of slopes Friday during my lesson.
The binding doesn't flex as easily as I expected — nice versions are spring-loaded, so, for instance, they don't tangle wide open when you're on a lift, but will allow the heel to pop up when cutting a turn.
Still, Telemark skis feel squirrelly at first, and I fell several times on my first runs simply because they react differently than Alpine skis, even in easy maneuvers like stopping or standing still.
Yeah, I fell while standing still.
"Lunging down the hill" may be the easiest way to describe what Telemark skiing looks like, but it's hardly a fit descriptor for the actual act. Turns out, a lunge is hard to do when you're moving with any speed down the hill. It feels unnatural at first and takes a great deal of buy-in, a lunge of faith, that kicking your legs like this and bending your knees like that won't put you in the hospital.
"It's pretty tricky when you first start," 11-year old Hill Fitzgerald said.
Before I even put ski to snow, Cara Marrs identified what likely would be my biggest stumbling block.
"Most people who go from Alpine, when they're making their turns, instead of having both knees bent, they use their front leg to brace," she said. "That actually makes your quad burn even more."
After starting my Friday lesson with Marrs, who helps coach Telemark skiing for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, I was having a great deal of difficulty following the most basic aspect of Telemark skiing.
I couldn't bend my knee.
Marrs has been Telemark skiing since moving to Steamboat in 1997.
Leather boots were the rule even then, though those quickly gave way to plastic boots.
The Winter Sports Club started an all-mountain Telemark program in 2003, and Marrs and her husband, Dave, helped coach the program from its inception, as did local skier Ken Recker.
Cara Marrs has been an eyewitness to the way the sport has taken hold in town.
"It's really grown," she said. "The first year, they only had four kids. This year, we had about 40. At first, there weren't any other programs like this. Now, there are a few, but they're smaller. Steamboat has really been at the forefront in kids Telemark skiing."
Now there are two separate Telemark programs with the club.
The competitive program will be well represented in this week's Telemark National Championships, which start Thursday with a sprint classic race at Howelsen Hill.
A dual slalom at Howelsen will follow Friday, a classic race is set for Saturday at Steamboat Ski Area and a giant slalom will wrap the event up at the ski area March 27.
The Telemark program Marrs helps with meets twice a week and focuses on lessons and having fun. On Wednesday night, many of her pupils — Hill Fitzgerald, Peter Wharton and Bailey Wallisch — buzzed around Howelsen Hill.
All three have logged multiple years in the program, and all three go full time with Tele gear.
"It's a lot more fun that Alpine," Bailey said. "With Alpine, you basically just go down. There's no motion. With Telemark, it's more fluid."
There wasn't much of anything fluid about my first hour on Telemark skis. Marrs pulled the oldest ski instructor trick in the book and took my poles, and I waved my arms wildly as I tried to keep my balance and execute one of the lunges she made look so easy.
We started on easy greens but were well into blues by the time the lifts stopped running.
As I moved slowly, concentrating on my every move, Bailey's words began to make sense. There is a rhythm to Telemark skiing that's not there on Alpine skis, a bobbing, bending and weaving routine that caresses you down the hill, around bumps and through powder. I began to feel it.
It never got easy, and I never managed to bend my forward leg the way I was supposed to, constantly using it as a brace as Marrs had predicted.
I hadn't "figured it out" by the time we reached the base on our last run, but I was getting closer. It was making sense. Like so many others in Steamboat, I was Telemark skiing.
Sure, it helped that I focused hard on gritting my teeth.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com